A small plane apparently crashed last night on Nantucket Island. First reports are never quite right, but it appears that the weather was terrible -- dark; very low clouds; mist and fog; sea, sky, and land in a blur. These are deadly conditions to fly in, and the same conditions in the same area killed John F. Kennedy Jr. 8 years ago.*


Here's the difference: the two people in the plane over Nantucket lived. They (reportedly) pulled the parachute on their small Cirrus airplane and came down safely on the island. A lot of hard-boiled aviators say that pilots shouldn't "need" a parachute, that if you're good enough you can always "glide it in," that they'll lose their edge if they have this security blanket, and so on. Anyone outside aviation thinks: that is nuts! If John Kennedy's plane had a parachute, he might have been scolded for being reckless and getting himself into a bad situation. But he would be alive to hear the scolding, and so would his two passengers.


Alan Klapmeier, president of the company that makes these parachute-equipped Cirrus airplanes (one of which I used to own), likes to say: The penalty for bad judgment should not be death. Amen.


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* Short explanation of the problem: if you can't see the horizon when you are flying, eventually you will lose control of the airplane and crash. Details for another time -- see William Langeweische's classic Atlantic article "The Turn" for more. (Subscribers only; subscribe!) In practice this means that you don't fly in such circumstances -- unless you have an instrument rating, which teaches you to fly without seeing where you are, and you're on an instrument flight plan, with controllers telling you where to go. Kennedy did not have an instrument rating, and the Nantucket plane appears not to have been on an instrument flight plan.

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